It’s hard to grasp how much privacy has been lost in the past two decades. Government and corporations, often working together, have made sure that nobody in the US can enjoy a private life anymore. It’s almost impossible to avoid leaving a record of everything you say, everything you do, everywhere you go, and everyone you have contact with. Most people don’t grasp how widespread the surveillance is. Here are some of the types:
– when you approach an ATM machine or bank teller’s window, your image is recorded for posterity.
– when you use a credit or debit card, the transaction is recorded by the bank and the government.
– wherever you take your cell phone, the NSA can track your movements.
– your cell phone can be remotely turned into a microphone for the NSA to listen to background voices, even if it’s turned off.
– your car’s computer system, if it accepts verbal input, can be remotely turned into a microphone, so an NSA analyst can listen to conversations in the car.
– your television, monitor, and webcam can be remotely turned on without your knowledge, and whatever they see or hear is transmitted to the NSA.
– your car’s computer keeps track of where you go, the route you take, where you stop, and how long you stay—and the NSA can acquire the data if they want it.
– Facebook keeps a shadow profile more extensive than the profile you provided, and its bots scour the Internet for personal details to add to that shadow profile.
– the NSA keeps track of your phone calls, who you spoke to, for how long, and can record your conversations.
– the NSA records all your e-mails, internet postings, chats, and web searches.
– the NSA can remotely load spyware onto your cellphone or your computer undetectable by commercial anti-spyware, without you knowing.
– in public places, you are watched by multiple cameras, your movements recorded.
I think that most people have some vague sense that such surveillance is going on. They don’t worry about it too much because they don’t think that what they say or do is of any significance to the government. In other words, they feel they have nothing to hide because they aren’t terrorists.
Let me point out, however, that the NSA has its own city complex in Fort Meade, Maryland. It has fifty buildings filled with tens of thousands of employees. And this complex, which is surrounded by electrified fences and anti-tank barriers and armed guards, is still not large enough for NSA purposes. It is now adding another 227 acres to the complex, with another 1.8 million square feet of buildings, even its own power plant. Nor will that vast size of a dominion suffice; on its drawing boards are two more phases of construction that will expand it into a mid-sized city. Who is so naïve as to think that all this surveillance capacity is intended only for the purpose of catching the occasional shoe-bomber?
No. This overarching cyberpower has two aims. The first is to let the US to dominate the world in the same way that it dominated the world with nuclear weapons after WWII. The second is to dominate the populace of the US and render impotent any efforts to limit its authority. The NSA does not talk publicly about either of these aims. Both, of course, are achievable if the NSA gets what it craves, which is total access to all digital information in the world. If it can track everything that everybody is doing or has done—here in the US and in the rest of the world—it will be virtually omnipotent. That complex in Fort Meade will have more power, more control over the lives of human beings, than all the combined empires of history. It refuses to answer to us now, and it will certainly not answer to us then.
Now let’s address the argument that we shouldn’t care about any of this because we aren’t doing anything wrong. On the face of it, that’s an absurd rationalization, because all of us do things that are wrong, as well as things that we’d prefer to keep private. We are, after all, human. There is no doubt at all that when J. Edgar Hoover attained so much power as head of the FBI, it wasn’t just that he knew where the bodies were buried; he also knew plenty that was happening that was merely embarrassing—who was gay, who liked to cross-dress, who was cheating on his spouse, who had a bastard child, who had a drug addiction, and so on. But beyond the embarrassing things that we want to keep just between us and our spouses (or priests or therapists), all of us commit illegal acts as well. Little acts, to be sure, but illegal just the same. We tweak our tax returns, we make the occasional illegal u-turn, we exceed the speed limit, we download songs without paying for them, we jaywalk, we don’t pay income tax on garage sale earnings, etc. It is impossible—literally impossible—to function in US society without breaking the law once in a while.
So asserting that total surveillance doesn’t matter to us because we’re innocent is a foolish claim. What we mean is that we’re such insignificant peons that our little words and deeds aren’t worth exposing or prosecuting.
Let’s face it, that’s pathetic. None of us are insignificant. And even if we are unimportant, the principle at hand is not. This is the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution that we’re talking about. If there’s anything sacred in our materialistic society, it’s the Constitution. That’s the only thing all of us in this country have in common. Religion, language, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic status—these we differ in. But the Constitution belongs to all of us and unites us all. And the ongoing surveillance by the government is a horrific violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure—with emphasis on search. Even the FISA court, the judicial body created to keep an eye on the federal eavesdroppers, has issued an opinion admitting as much.
This matter isn’t about weighing a balance between safety and privacy. The pundits get that wrong, and I imagine the government encourages dissent to be framed within those terms. But the Constitution isn’t about safety and privacy. The Constitution is about rights and powers. And it says in no uncertain terms that the government can’t poke into people’s affairs without credible evidence that there is illegal activity going on. Furthermore, before the government searches, it has to gain the approval of a judge—and I’m pretty sure that when the Founding Fathers wrote that clause into the Fourth Amendment they didn’t intend for secret courts to be created to approve secret searches based on secret testimony by secret witnesses in secret proceedings with secret judgments that result in secret sentences to secret prisons. No, I don’t believe that’s what they had in mind at all. No sir.
Suppose that you don’t care a tinker’s dam about the Fourth Amendment or the Constitution. Suppose also that you’re as pure as driven snow and haven’t done anything remotely questionable in your entire life and don’t plan to start anytime soon. Also, you abhor terrorists and wish they’d be all caught and transported to Abu Ghraib. Is there any reason why you should oppose NSA surveillance? As a matter of fact, yes, there is. Here are three good reasons:
1. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, they passed new laws making illegal some activities that hadn’t been previously. They made such laws retroactive, and set about prosecuting people who had been innocent, but now were guilty, even though what they did was legal at the time. That could happen here as well, with some dramatic change in government. You think retroactive laws are out of the question? Not at all. Our Congress passed a law giving retroactive immunity to telecoms that enabled illegal wiretaps by the Bush administration, protecting them against tort suits for damages.
2. It isn’t what the NSA has on you that counts. It’s what it has on others. What happens if the NSA—even rogue analysts in the NSA—find some dirt on a Supreme Court Justice? Or on the President, or his wife or kids? What if another J. Edgar Hoover gains the reins of power in the NSA and decides the purge the country of political parties he dislikes? What if he decides the genetic pool needs purifying, and he forces Congressional leaders into passing strict racial laws by threatening to expose their sexual proclivities? What if the NSA decides to eliminate your son, the investigative journalist, so they remotely take over his car’s computer system and drive it into a tree at ninety miles an hour? (By the way, they have the technical tools to do that and may have done it already.) You see, it’s not just your secrets, or lack thereof, that matter. It’s the potential leverage over elected officials and others who matter to you that surveillance hands over to an unelected and unrestrained bureaucracy.
3. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. A society needs to have open political debates—as well as a press that dares to find and expose wrongdoing and corruption. But there can be no open debates in a surveillance state. Let me offer a personal anecdote to make my point. About a decade ago, I made a musing comment on a blog thread, to the effect that Ted K. (who was the Younib*mber), might have been ahead of his time. A few minutes later I got an e-mail from someone I didn’t know. This person thanked me for my thoughtful comment and asked if I posted my writings anywhere else on the internet, because he would like to read more. That had never happened to me before (and it has never happened since) and it freaked me out. It seemed obvious to me that I had tripped a red flag by mentioning the name of Ted K. I replied to the e-mail, inquiring if he was NSA, and emphasized that I did not agree with Ted K’s methods. The person answered, breezily making light of my query about his identity, and repeating his request. After another attempt to draw me out, he gave up. Ever since, I’ve been wary about using words that are likely to bring attention from federal agents whose attention I really don’t want. Did I do anything illegal, or even embarrassing? Not at all. Yet the mere hint of surveillance had a chilling effect on my expression of political opinions. And that is what makes surveillance so cunning. Once people know they’re being watched and listened to, they police themselves. They stop voicing views that don’t parrot the government line, and if there’s a taboo subject they’ll pretend it doesn’t exist. By cultivating the belief that everyone is being watched and listened to, the KGB or the Stasi—or the NSA—can keep even law-abiding citizens in a state of anxiety. Freedoms are gone when that point is reached, expunged by the mere threat of surveillance.
Realistically, we can’t stop the growth of surveillance technology. These new and frightening tools are inseparable from the new weapons of cyberwarfare, which are being deployed as well. The rationalization will always be that if we (meaning the US) don’t develop cyberwarfare technologies, other nations (Iran, Russia, China) will, and they then will use the cyberweaponry against us because they “hate us for our freedoms.”
However, it is absolutely imperative that this unconstitutional domestic surveillance be curtailed—immediately, implacably, and irrevocably. Neither the NSA nor the FBI nor any other classified bureaucracy can be allowed to listen and watch what every citizen is saying and doing. If it continues, we in this nation will no longer have any freedoms for the terrorists to hate. And although it may not be exactly the victory that the terrorists wanted or what they expected, they will nevertheless have won.
So true that the government has attempted to modify the Constitutional dichotomy of rights vs powers into that of freedoms vs safeties. It serves the government well to sidetrack public debate in this way because who will argue against the value of safety?
Ironically, surveillance does not assure safety. Information gathering is the latest frontier in the quest for power for the world’s leading governments, but that power does not lead to safety, but rather jealousy, anger, and violence.
But the threat of political conflict is not the most freightening potential result of surveillance. The most freightening side effect of our latest quest for power is that addressed in the conclusion of this piece–the self-imposed censorship that can result from ubiquitous surveillance. And this is not only true because valuable, but eccentric ideas will no longer be voiced, but equally because dangerous and off-base ideas will no longer be voiced, either. Instead, they will be hardened. If one feels his ideas can not be voiced openly, they are instead nursed secretly. The fearful opinion-holder will talk only to others who agree with his opinions. He may begin to muse, stew, and fume over his opinions until they becomes solid, cold, and unchangable.
In open dialogue, humans can come together in communication intended to glean the useful and cull the determental parts of each of our ideas and opinions. In natural human relations, people change their minds, modify their opinions, and tweak their behaviors when necessary for the good of the whole. In a fearful, secretive society, people ignore the convictions of others, stubburnly hold on to their own opinions regardless of their value, and refuse to change unhealthy behaviors because they feel the need to protect themselves and their tight-knit group of yea-sayers. This can result in anything from a fragmented society devoid of the shared value of all people working as one to a defensively violent society of hardened, resentful citizens stricking out randomly in anger.